Don’t join Toastmasters? Seriously?

While skimming through my Twitter feed the other day, a Tweet caught my eye. It contained the link to a post on Entrepreneur by Jonathan Li entitled 10 Mistakes Successful Speakers Never Make Again. I was intrigued. I thought, I make mistakes; I should read it. So I did.

tm-logoMost of what I read in the post—which was published in May 2015 but is still being shared—I expected to find. What I did not expect was the recommendation not to join Toastmasters.

I did a double-take. For a moment, I thought there must be a typo, but no, I read it correctly. Here is the entirety of what Li wrote in defence of his recommendation:

Successful speakers don’t go to Toastmasters, because the organization’s forced-to-clap environment is unrealistic. Successful speakers practice public speaking in front of live audiences that provide constructive feedback. The realistic environment helps them grow and succeed faster.

Not only is this the flimsiest of rationales, it’s just plain wrong. Let’s deconstruct Li’s argument.

1.  The definition of a “successful” speaker is subjective. For some, being a successful speaker could be getting paid to speak or giving a TED Talk. For others, success might be something as simple as being able to give a toast at a wedding without falling apart. The vast majority of Toastmasters have no intention of becoming professional speakers; they just want to become more comfortable in front of an audience. Speaking at Toastmasters has helped many people achieve this level of “success”.

2.  Li states that successful speakers “[don’t feel] terrified before speaking in front of groups”. One of the benefits of Toastmasters is that it helps people be more at ease when speaking in front of others. Yes, a Toastmasters audience is supportive, but people have to start somewhere. Telling people that they should “choose to turn their nervousness into excitement” and “focus on transforming lives and making a big impact” is all well and good, but you need to do that in front of a real audience. A Toastmasters meeting is one of the places where you can get this opportunity.

3.  Toastmasters has a “forced-to-clap” environment that is unrealistic. Yes, clapping is a big part of Toastmasters and even I find it a bit much at times. But for some, the applause is important (see Point 1 above) and, in any event, it is certainly not a reason not to join.

4.  “Successful speakers practice public speaking in front of live audiences that provide constructive feedback.” Well, at Toastmasters, people speak in front of live audiences that provide constructive feedback. In fact, in my experience, Toastmasters provide more constructive feedback than you get in many corporate settings. Sure, the feedback is sometimes heavier on the positive side than on suggestions for improvement, but depending on the experience of the speaker, that is not a bad thing. Experienced speakers should be given more constructive criticism than novice speakers. You want to encourage people, not discourage them.

5.  “The realistic environment helps them grow and succeed faster.” Fine, but what is a “realistic” environment? Nowhere in his post does Li offer an example of a “realistic” environment where people should speak. Presumably, he means anywhere but Toastmasters. However, every speaking situation is different; every speaking situation offers different opportunities for growth. I am a firm believer that if people want to hone their speaking skills, they should definitely speak in front of non-Toastmaster audiences. No issue there. But why does that preclude them from speaking at Toastmasters as well? It should not be an either / or proposition.

6.  Li concludes his post by stating, correctly, that no matter how we may be as speakers, we need to keep improving. He then encourages readers to “learn from other successful speakers, attend seminars, and watch the best TED talks.” While I agree with his suggestions, there is a glaring omission. What about … practice speaking in front of people? That is the best way to become a better speaker. You could watch every TED Talk ever given, but until you go on stage yourself, you don’t really know what it’s like. Toastmasters is a place where you can get on stage.

This week I had phone call with my good friend and fellow speaker, Conor Neill. Conor is part of a close network of speaker-friends that I have here in Europe. We collaborate on projects, share ideas and refer work to each other. We look out for one another and constantly try to improve each other’s game.

During our discussion, Conor asked how I try out new material before using it with clients. One of the ways is Toastmasters, which I use as a laboratory where I can experiment. Sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t, but it is always a valuable learning experience. I tell people to think of, and use, Toastmasters as a place where they can stretch themselves; a place where they can try things that they wouldn’t risk doing in a “realistic” environment. Few places offer this kind of oratorical sandbox. I fail to see how taking advantage of such an opportunity is anathema to successful public speaking.

I have been a member of Toastmasters since mid-2007. I have given dozens of speeches there, spoken at Toastmasters conferences across Europe and won several speech contests at the highest level. Two years ago, I left a secure position as a lawyer at the World Health Organization to pursue a full-time career in public speaking.

I have worked with some of the largest, best known companies and organizations in the world. I have given a TEDx Talk to 700 people. In the past year, I have been paid to speak at events in Canada, the United States, Argentina, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Spain and Finland, and I already have bookings late into 2017.

Am I a successful speaker? I suppose it depends on your definition of success. However, to the extent that I have had any success, Toastmasters has made a positive contribution. It is not perfect and it should not be the only place you speak. But it is a great organization that can offer you a lot of benefits.

Don’t join Toastmasters? That’s just short-sighted, bad advice.

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About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
This entry was posted in Toastmasters and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Don’t join Toastmasters? Seriously?

  1. Alex Maxwell Maxwell says:

    toastmasters has some good qualities , but are shortly lost by others lessor ones . It seems to be a cross between Amway and a church . I wouldn’t advise one to join or not to join The governance structure of Toastmasters might be okay in some chapters but definitely was absent at ours

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    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks for the comment, Alex. Yes, the quality of Toastmaster clubs can differ widely. And yes, it can have that Amway / church feel as you put it. But if people approach it with the right mindset, and use it as a laboratory or gym to strengthen their skills, it can be valuable. My concern was with the blanket statement that one should never join TM. If a person does not like a club, they can always try another one.

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  2. Rich G says:

    I have been to two Toastmaster meetings as a guest. I enjoyed both meetings. At the second meeting I did my first table topic. I was so nervous my back muscles actually spasmed and hurt. So I am not sure if it is something I should pursue but I really appreciate your insights contained in this article.

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    • John Zimmer says:

      Congratulations on getting up and speaking, Rich. You should definitely keep at it. It gets easier and easier, though the nerves never go away entirely. But that is all part of the deal. And do some stretching before for your back! Cheers!

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  3. Salam John,

    I totally agree with your analysis of this “bad” advice of “Don’t join Toastmasters”.

    It is probably one of the best decisions I have ever taken, joining Toastmasters has been a live changing for me, personally more than professionally. As we are in the business of people every minute, every hour and every day of our lives, speaking clearly with confidence is a major skill to learn.

    I joined Toastmasters two years ago, have given 10s of speeches in different clubs in different cities, if there is one thing that I may understand why Jonathan Li advised against joining Toastmasters is that the evaluation part. Many evaluations are “Soft” which does not help speakers to improve. Having said that Jonathan Li could have had a better advice than that.

    Toastmasters rocks!!

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  4. Rashid says:

    Toastmasters is an excellent organization. Its very success, its vast reach, and its longevity put an end to any serious opposing argument.

    In wannabe-entrepreneurial flights of imagination, I have speculated that if I could convert the goodwill, and growth that is so normal in Toastmasters, into a tonic or an ointment, and sell it to corporations, I would cease to have financial worries : ). There is something special going on in Toastmasters.

    I remember an instance when a first time guest opted to answer a Table Topics question, and truly shared her story, a thought crossed my mind; “If this same person were to join my team at work, it would probably be a year before I would get to know her story so well”. There is something special going on in Toastmasters.

    As far as opportunity for practice (accompanied with immediate feedback) goes, I have no doubt that Mr. Jonathan Li would benefit a lot from evaluations from some of us.

    GOOD LUCK!

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  5. Katie Kallio says:

    Hi John,

    Couldn’t agree more as a Toastmaster and all who have been helped by Toastmasters!

    I attended Toastmaster District 60 Fall Conference “Light the Fire Within” in Toronto this weekend.

    The keynote speaker was Darren LaCroix who leveraged his Toastmasters 2001 World Champion of Public Speaking win into Stage Time University and an awesome professional speaking career.

    As Darren LaCroix said Saturday – never turn down stage time, each time you put your hand up, stand up and speak up, you become better ( not perfect but better ). Thanks for the applause Toastmasters!

    Congratulations to you and Manner of Speaking for deserved spot in Top 50 Public Speaking Blogs by Feedspot!

    Katie Kallio

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    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks, Katie. LaCroix gives sound advice. And that’s what Toastmasters is: another place where you can get experience speaking. It’s not the only place – nor should it be – but it is a good place to practice. Thanks also for the congrats. Much appreciated.

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  6. Conor Neill says:

    Great to see our conversation turning into a reflective blog post! (especially on one of the world’s top public speaking blogs according to feedspot!)

    As someone who has never joined Toastmasters I can see Jonathan Li’s point… it is true that many people that have worked their way through the toastmasters system end up with some characteristics in their delivery manner that I might call “over-acting”.

    The idea of viewing Toastmasters as a “laboratory” where you can “play” with speaking and try out things that you are not ready to risk in the “real world” is powerful. I think this attitude is fundamental to allowing Toastmasters to be a platform for having a bigger role as a speaker in your life 😉 The winner of the world championship of speaking follows toastmaster’s cultural rules of what is a great speech, which is not necessarily the same as corporate keynotes, sales convention workshops or TED talks!

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    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks, Conor. I too am not a fan of the theatrical style that many Toastmasters adopt. Having said that, you can be theatrical at TM with your voice, gestures, etc. as a way of seeing how far you can push yourself. You might just discover that you have a much broader ranges than you thought. So, for example, if your level of enthusiasm when speaking is normally a 2 out of 10, at TM you can push yourself to try 8, 9 or 10. Not that you would necessarily go to that extreme in the “real” world. But if you realize that you can do 8,9 or 10, then when you are speaking outside of TM, you might just feel more comfortable going to 4 or 5 or 6 (as appropriate) and thus connect with your audience.

      But I agree. A TM speech is different from a corporate keynote which is different from a TED Talk. That’s why trying all these different kinds of speeches / presentations is like cross-training for your public speaking skills!

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  7. Thanks for unpacking this, since “Successful speakers practice public speaking in front of live audiences that provide constructive feedback. The realistic environment helps them grow and succeed faster.” Is exactly what Toastmasters provide 🙂

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  8. Mel Kelly says:

    Hi John,
    I agree fully with you.
    Also I find it a great place to practice my comedy routines before going to the comedy clubs.
    Cheers
    –Mel

    Like

  9. Rich Hopkins, 3rd place in the 2006 WCPS puts it best I believe. “Toastmasters is Ice Skating. Professional Speaking is Ice Hockey.”

    Liked by 1 person

  10. phyllis zimmer says:

    Excellent response to Johnathan Li comment on Toastmasters. Hope he gets to read it and rethinks his advice and even learns something new.

    Like

  11. I found Jonathan’s article very lightweight. It skims through 10 topics, but only devotes 3 or 4 sentences to each.

    I agree with your points, and for me this sentence hit the nail on the head: “Toastmasters… is not perfect and it should not be the only place you speak.”

    On the road to better speaking, Toastmasters is a great help. If you attend a lot, it can be a time-consuming way to improve, but it’s definitely worth including some Toastmasters experience (especially contests), along with other workshops and speaking gigs in your “speaking mix”. Their contests have quite a different feel from regular meetings, as the audience is bigger and more “realistic”, and there’s less clapping!

    (By the way, I just reviewed a Toastmasters video that gives advice on managing public-speaking fear. There’s a lot to learn from the clip, including 3 great strengths and 1 major flaw for an online video. See what you think.)

    Like

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